In the minutes after the South Tower fell on September 11, 2001, an investment banker had an epiphany. Having escaped with his life just ahead of the collapse, he wandered through the smoke and confusion of lower Manhattan until he found himself in a church in Greenwich Village. Alone at the altar, covered in ash and dust, he began to shake and sob. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up. It was a policeman.
“Don’t worry,” the cop said, “you’re in shock.”
“I’m not in shock,” the investment banker answered. “I like this state. I’ve never been more cognizant in my life.”
Around the same time that the banker noticed his changed consciousness and a hundred blocks north, I thought, or felt, because there were really no words yet: Maybe this will make us better. That was all; I didn’t know what it meant. The feeling made me ashamed because it seemed insuf.ciently horror-stricken. But like any repressed feeling, it continued to lurk. And in the hours and days that followed, it seemed to be borne out on the streets of New York.
I spent most of two days sitting on a sidewalk in downtown Brooklyn, waiting to give blood with hundreds of other people. I had long conversations with those near me, in the temporary intimacy between strangers that kept breaking out all over the city. There was Matthew Timms, a twenty-eight-year-old unemployed video producer who had tried to . lm the attacks from across the East River in Williamsburg, only to . nd his camera battery had gone dead. His own detachment, he said—which extended to his whole life—so disturbed him that he wanted his blood drawn in order to overcome it. “I volunteered so I could be a part of something,” he said. “All over the world people do something for an ideal. I’ve been at no point in my life when I could say something I’ve done has affected mankind. Like when the news was on, I was thinking, What if there was a draft? Would I go? I think I would.” Lauren Moynihan, a lawyer in her thirties, had traveled all over the city pleading with hospitals and emergency centers to take her blood and been turned away by all of them. As a “civilian,” without skills, she felt useless. “This is like a little bit short of volunteering to go for the French Foreign Legion,” said Dave Lampe, a computer technician from Jersey City who was wearing suspenders decorated with brightly colored workman’s tools. A sixteen-yearold girl named Amalia della Paolera, passing out juice and cookies along the line, said, “This is the time when we need to be, like, pulling together and doing as much as we can for each other and not, like, sitting at home watching it on TV and saying, like, ‘Oh, there’s another bomb.’”
Everyone wanted to be of use and no one knew how, as if citizenship were a skilled position for which none of us had the right experience and quali.cations. People seemed to be feeling the same thing: they had not been living as they would have liked; the horrors of the day before had woken them up; they wanted to change. So they had come to stand in line, and they continued to wait long after it became clear that no blood was going to be needed.
The mood that came over New York after September 11—for me it will always be tied to the “Missing” picture posted at my subway stop of a young woman named Gennie Gambale, and then all the other pictures that appeared overnight around the city; the .ags sprouting in shop windows; the clots of melted candle wax on sidewalks; the bitter smell of smoke from lower Manhattan; the clusters of people gathering in the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or Union Square to sing or write messages or read them; the kindness on the subway; the constant wail of sirens for no obvious purpose; the .remen outside a station house in midtown accepting .owers at midnight; the rescue workers at the end of their shift trudging up West Street with gray dust coating their faces and clothes; the people waiting at barricades on Canal Street with pots of foil-covered food; the garrulousness of strangers; the sleeplessness, the sense of being on alert all the time and yet useless—this mood broke over the city like a storm at the end of a season of languid days stretching back longer than anyone could remember. People became aware, as if for the . rst time, that they were not merely individuals with private ends. Whitman’s spirit walked down every street: “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?” The embarrassment of strong emotions felt by sophisticated people in peaceful times dropped away, and strangers looked at one another differently. We became citizens.
This mood lasted around two weeks, then it began to fade. The cleanup was taken out of the hands of volunteers and entrusted to experts with heavy machinery. Elected of.cials told the public to resume normal life as quickly as possible. Average people could show they cared by going out to dinner and holding on to stocks. Then came the anthrax scare, which created more panic than the air attacks had, replacing solidarity with hysteria; and then the Afghanistan war, which signaled the return of the familiar, since the public in whose name it was fought had no more to do with it than with other recent wars. By now, it’s hard to believe that anything as profound as the banker’s epiphany really happened at all.
I thought that the attacks and the response would puncture a bloated era in American history and mark the start of a different, more attractive era. I thought that without some such change we would not be able to win this new war—that the crisis that mattered most was internal. One undercurrent of the mood of those days was a sense of shame: we had had it too good, had gotten away with it for too long. In the weeks afterward,
W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” kept appearing in e-mails and on websites and on subway walls, with its suddenly apt . rst stanza:
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night.
For at least a low dishonest decade, large numbers of Americans had been living in an untenable state, a kind of complacent fantasy in which the dollar is always strong; the stock market keeps going up; investments always provide a handsome return; wars are fought by other people, end quickly, and can be won with no tax increases, no civilian sacri. ces, and few if any American casualties; global dominance is maintained on the strength of technological and economic success without the taint or burden of an occupying empire; power and wealth demand no responsibility; and history leaves Americans alone. It didn’t matter whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the White House, or whether we were bombing some foreign country or not. Public concerns had nothing to do with politics or citizenship, those relics of the eigh teenth century, and every thing to do with the market—“Where,” Auden wrote, “blind skyscrapers use / Their full height to proclaim / The strength of Collective Man.”
This fantasy took on its most lavish and triumphant expression in New York, and it was frozen in place there when the towers fell. Several weeks later, a journalist wandered into the ghostly executive dining room of Deutsche Bank, across Liberty Street from where the South Tower had stood, and noted the breakfast menu for September 11: smoked-salmon omelettes and chocolate-.lled pancakes. The remains of a meal for two— half-drunk juice turning dark, a mostly eaten omelette, withering fruit— sat abandoned on a table. The whole scene was .nely coated in the ubiquitous gray dust and ash, like the tableaux of Romans caught eating and sleeping by the lava of Vesuvius; except that Pompeii was entirely destroyed, whereas the American civilization at which the nineteen radical Islamist hijackers aimed passenger planes still persists in roughly its old shape, though ragged at the edges and shaky in the nerves.
Political predictions usually come true when reality and wish coincide, and as it turned out, I was wrong. September 11 has not ushered in an era of reform. It has not made America or Americans very much better, more civic-minded. It has not replaced market values with dem o cratic values. It has not transformed America from the world’s overwhelming economic and military power into what it has often been in the past—a light of freedom and equality unto the nations. None of this has happened, because America is currently governed by bad leaders, because the opposition is weak, because our wealth and power remain so enormous that even an event as dramatic as the terrorist attacks can’t fully penetrate them, because a crisis doesn’t automatically bring down the curtain on an era, because change usually comes in the manner of a corkscrew rather than a hammer.
Yet my .rst response on the morning of September 11 still seems the one worth holding on to. The investment banker jerked awake, the aspirations up and down the line of those wanting to give blood, revealed something about the moral condition of Americans at this moment in our history. Like any crisis, the attacks brought buried feelings to the surface and showed our society in a collective mirror. That day changed America less than most people anticipated, but it made Americans think about change—not just as individuals, but as a country.
The hijackers believed they were striking a blow at a decadent civilization, and they were partly right. Islamic terrorists had been trying for years to make Americans aware of their implacable hostility. In 1996 Osama bin Laden declared war on American interests in the Arab world, and in 1998 he extended it to American and Jewish civilians every where, telling a reporter that he had learned from Somalia that Americans were too soft and cowardly to .ght back. No one here noticed. Only a deeply insular, perpetually distracted people with a short memory, a vague notion of the rest of the world, and no .rsthand experience of tyranny could have absorbed all the blows of the past decade without understanding that a serious movement wanted to destroy us. Imagine what the hijackers saw in their last days on earth—a society so capacious and free that it opened itself wide to the agents of its own destruction and gave them the tools to do it. The soulless motels and parking lots of small towns from Florida to Maine, the promiscuous street mix of colors and sexes and faiths, the lack of prayer, the half-dressed women, the fat people in tight clothes, the world empty of Allah, the supreme thrill of knowing in advance what every ignorant idiot around them did not, the endless stock market news on airport lounge televisions, the drowsy security guards, and . nally the towers coming into view, thrusting up out of the clear blue sky in their dazzling white arrogance. The hijackers would have seen, and hated, both America’s best and its worst—the rowdy polychrome energy, the moral emptiness of wealth and power.
To imagine a new, and a better, American response, it’s necessary to look hard at where we are now and how we got here. One of the features of American life that had fallen into decay by September 11, 2001, was our democ racy. The reasons are numerous and have a complex history, but I want to discuss three. The .rst has to do with government, and with ancient (and more recent) American attitudes toward it. The second has to do with money, and how it’s distributed in American society. The third has to do with an idea, which I will call liberalism, and the people whose business is ideas, who are called intellectuals.
Suspicion of government was seared into Americans’ minds before there was a United States. But the Enlightenment pamphleteers and politicians— Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and others—distrusted government in a way almost opposite that of modern people. The eigh teenth-century mind that gave birth to the new republic believed human beings to be rational creatures with a nearly limitless capacity for .nding happiness if only they are free. “Government in a well-constituted republic,” Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, his scathing response to Edmund Burke’s Re. ections on the Revolution in France, the founding document of conservatism, “requires no belief in man beyond what his reason can give.” In this sense all men are indeed created equal—endowed not just with rights but with reason. Liberal government, of which America gave the world the . rst example, was government based on reason rather than tradition (or ignorance, as Paine would have it; or faith, in the Islamists’ terms). This con.dence in the human mind to work out its own destiny meant that government, set up by consent to limit freedom only enough to ensure the public good, should remain small. If it got too big, it would concentrate too much power in privileged hands and turn back toward favoritism and distinctions, and against freedom and its rational use. Limited government, then, was a means, not an end; the end was human happiness, best achieved when men are free.
Individualism is part of our national character—the most famous part. But so is moralism, and this, too, goes back several centuries. The utopian fantasies of the pilgrims were submerged under the commercial practices of republican society, but they were never completely buried. The main theme of American history since in de pen dence has been the cheerful, vulgar, brutal, wantonly innocent pursuit of happiness, from the frontiersman to the venture capitalist. But a minor theme keeps recurring, a moralism so rigid that it baf.es Europeans—from John Brown to Kenneth Starr. Just as American individualism can appear either healthy and dynamic or blindly sel.sh, American moralism swings wildly between high-minded idealism and hysterical intolerance. At certain moments—our entry into World War I was one—the transformation happens almost overnight: the muckraker gave way to the night rider, the Progressive city commission to the Red Scare, without any letup in the sense of a national crusade.
The most potent political idea of my lifetime has been hostility to government—from Goldwater’s crankish “extremism in the defense of liberty,” to Rea gan’s triumphant “government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem,” to Clinton’s . nal tactical surrender: “The era of big government is over.” In this thinking, the government doesn’t embody the will of the people—in fact, it’s something alien, and a threat to their well-being. The creed reached a reductio ad absurdum in the last days of the 2000 campaign, when George W. Bush proclaimed that the Democrats “want the federal government controlling the Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program. We understand differently, though. You see, it’s your money, not the government’s money.” The super. cial similarity of modern conservatism to the language of the founders is misleading. Jefferson and his generation saw dem o cratic government—a new beginning of human history—as the collective embodiment of rational man. It served the public good. Conservatives today have no concept of the public good. They see Americans as investors and consumers, not citizens.
Like most victorious ideologies, antigovernment conservatism grew as complacent as the welfare-state liberalism it replaced—and far more extreme. The thinking of Timothy McVeigh wasn’t far from the core of the “respectable” American right in the 1990s. The doctrinal rigidity hardened to the point where, in the absence of government interventions, untreated problems, from the health care system to the electoral system, continued to fester, and still do. Among other things, September 11 reminded Americans that they need a government: inside the towers, public employees were going up while private ones went down.
One of the strangest things about the antigovernment era is that it coincided with the .rst prolonged drop in wages in American history. While free-market thinking was reigning triumphant, the middle class was contracting; even the brief pause during Clinton’s second term turned out to be riding on a mountain of personal debt and a stock market bubble that had to burst. So why was there no protest movement, not even a moderate legislative program, against the concentration of 50 percent of the nation’s wealth among 1 percent of its people, the lopsided effects of tax cuts, the massive economic dislocations caused by deindustrialization and globalization? When you come to think of it, less calamitous forces sparked the American Revolution.
But the change from an industrial to a high-tech economy, along with the movement of jobs and investment around the world, has been too incremental and various and complex to arouse any focused re sis tance. Most of the in.uential voices in society—the politicians, scholars, and journalists who, along with other professional classes, seemed to do better and better—said that the change was inevitable and ultimately bene.cial, and the public believed them. Meanwhile, the money kept adding up in the winners’ column, staggering amounts that no longer meant anything—hundred-and-.fty-million-dollar compensation packages for a CEO having a subpar year. This money bought unprecedented political power. Some businessmen spent their fortunes running for of.ce; others paid for their in. uence indirectly.
The relationship between democ racy and economic inequality creates a kind of self-perpetuating cycle: the people hold government in low esteem; public power shrinks against the awesome might of corporations and rich individuals; money and its in.uence claim a greater and greater share of political power; and the public, priced out of the dem o cratic game, grows ever more cynical about politics and puts more of its energy into private ends. Far from creating a surge of reform, the erosion of the middle class has only deepened the disenchantment. For thirty years or more the musculature of democ racy has atrophied, culminating in 2000 with a stolen presidential election.
For the past century, the political philosophy of collective action on behalf of freedom and justice has been liberalism. For most of that time, it was an expansive, self-con.dent philosophy, and history was on its side. Since around 1968, liberalism has been an active participant in its own decline. A creed that once spoke on behalf of the desire of millions of Americans for a decent life and a place in the sun shrank to a set of rigid pieties preached on college campuses and in eccentric big-city enclaves.
It turned insular, defensive, fragmented, and pessimistic. The phenomenon of political correctness, which for a period during the 1980s and early ’90s became the most visible expression of liberalism, amounted to a desire to control reality by purifying language and thought, to make the world better by changing a syllabus, or a name, or a word. It was a kind of cargo cult. At bottom, it represented a retreat from politics.
During these years, the energy that had once gone into struggles for justice under the heading of labor or civil rights balkanized and propelled narrower causes, de.ned not by any universal principles but along the lines of identity. This turned liberalism’s original project on its head: Two centuries ago, and up until the late 1960s, it was con ser va tives who argued for the importance of tradition, tribe, culture, for all the things given, while liberals put their faith in the free individual, who transcended any speci.cities of time and place, and whose rights were universal, by virtue of being human. Rhetorically, at least, all of that changed in the past few decades. The right took up the universalist language of reason, freedom, and truth, while multiculturalism spoke for group grievances based on the accident of birth. Many of them were real and redress was long overdue, but the idea of social justice ended up being someone else’s business.
While liberalism slept, the country became more corporate, less dem ocratic, less equal, more complacent. Liberalism has been a kind of enzyme in America’s dem o cratic system, periodically catalyzing reactions, speeding up change, making the organism more vital. Without it, our democracy tends to get fat and sluggish, as the pursuit of happiness guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence becomes a wholly private matter. In the tension between individual and community that every democ racy has to negotiate, what we saw in America in the years leading up to September 11 was the triumph of market individualism, without commitments. The polis was routed and the sense of civic responsibility died on both the left and the right. Instead, they offered a choice of hedonisms.
Dissatisfaction with the condition of democ racy isn’t new. It recurs among writers and intellectuals throughout American history, almost always couched in images of rot or decay or slackness, as periods of intense civic activism give way to ages of business dominance. The republicans of the Revolutionary era saw their new country release the massive energy of a free people into the getting of wealth, and it was not the republic for which men had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
By 1809 Philip Freneau, a Jeffersonian poet and journalist, beheld his countrymen “besotted by prosperity, corrupted by avarice, abject from luxury,” and in 1812 he proposed another war against the British as a dubious restoration of the spirit of ’76. After the supreme sacri.ces of the Civil War, Walt Whitman began to wonder what the .ghting had all been for—whether making America safe for Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller and a victorious people “with hearts of rags and souls of chalk” had merited Gettysburg’s last full mea sure of devotion. “Is not Democracy of human rights humbug after all?” Whitman asked. In his 1949 book The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., tried to suck new life into the lungs of the New Deal and antitotalitarianism as the stagnant waters of the television era started to rise around him: “Why does not democ racy believe in itself with passion? Why is freedom not a .ghting faith?” Democracy, it turns out, is a muscle that needs more frequent exercise than Americans have generally been interested in mustering.
In our own gilded age—whose obituary some commentators wrote after September 11—intellectuals played a curiously muted role. Who will be regarded as the Freneau, the Whitman, or the Schlesinger of the Nasdaq era? There was no convincing critique, no passionate dissent, no partisan literature that moved signi.cant numbers of people and stands a chance of being read in ten years. The reasons for this intellectual vacuum are many. Academic thinking, infatuated with postmodernist theory, has satis.ed itself with a fake-specialist jargon and a coy relativism that prefers dancing circles around important questions to the risk of trying to answer them. Political dissidence suffers, as it has in this country at least since Thoreau, from a sneering contempt for average American life and a sentimental insistence that reality simply fall in line behind enlightened feelings. The best imaginative writers withdrew into the inner life and its discontents, or else wrote about American society with such compulsive irony that nothing could be af.rmed beyond a style of narrative brilliance. There is also the possibility that most intellectuals, in universities and think tanks and journals, have no authentic quarrel with American life. Seduction by iced latte, mutual fund, and The Sopranos is a slow, nearly invisible disease; it can happen without leaving a trace in print, yet at some point the organism has lost the impulse to object. An opposition that is .nancially secure, mentally insincere, and generally ignored isn’t likely to produce Common Sense or Democratic Vistas. Excerpted from Interesting Times by George Packer.
Copyright © 2009 by George Packer.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, most recently The Assassins’ Gate (FSG, 2005). His reporting has won four Overseas Press Club awards.